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Billie Holiday's jazz ballad of grace under pressure gets a revival staging

Published October 25, 2012 10:12 am

Stage • Pygmalion revives the theatrical song of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," featuring local actor Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The jazz world has never wanted for tortured figures. Pianist Bill Evans battled heroin, as did alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. Bassist Charles Mingus struggled to control his fiery temper, when he wasn't confronting depression that crippled his composing output.

Yet few members of the jazz world's undisputed pantheon can compete with Billie Holiday, also known as "Lady Day."

Born into poverty in Philadelphia, Elinore Harris rarely saw either of her parents. She dropped out of school the same year she was raped, at age 11, by a neighborhood man. She worked odd jobs at a brothel, then followed her mother into the profession, as well as short-term relationships with transient men and drug addiction.

It was thanks to the nightclubs of Harlem that the woman who came to be known as Billie Holiday found her sole salvation: music. Her strange, mysterious voice caressed the notes with a singular beauty. She worked for a short time with big-band leader Count Basie, waged friendly competition with Ella Fitzgerald and was dubbed "Lady Day" by tenor saxophone legend Lester Young.

Her legacy is there for the taking in copious recordings documenting her talent. But her life itself was also a sort of song, eventually told for stage by Lanie Robertson's award-winning 1989 play, "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill."

Salt Lake City's Pygmalion Productions opened the play in 2010, featuring local actor/singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin singing the songs that made Holiday famous, including "God Bless the Child," "When a Woman Loves a Man" and "Strange Fruit."

Teresa Sanderson, who directed the company's original production, returns for the revival and another journey into the heart of an artist many believe the most enigmatic and compelling in all of jazz music. The play opens Thursday at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts, running through Nov. 10.

"She died the year before I was born, and I was only 13 when I discovered her voice," said Sanderson, also a noted local actor. "Her phrasing was like no other's, and it was a pleasure to hear it brought back for me by Dee-Dee."

The play is a total immersion into Holiday's life, times and music, as the playwright imagines Holiday returning to her native Philadelphia after having found worldwide fame. Set four months before Holiday's death in 1959 at age 44, the play hints at notes of a swan-song.

Audiences would be remiss to read too much into that time-frame, however. The overall mood speaks to Holiday's strength, stamina and humor.

"The stage notes say that it should not be played tragically, in any way," Sanderson said. "Music, for her, was living. Singing was her life."

Laikwan Waigwa-Stone, who plays Holiday's piano accompanist Jimmy Powers, chimed in: "Billie was a great storyteller. She never feels sorry for herself. She's also wildly, outrageously funny."

And resolute in her art. Many songs have been labeled haunting, but few fit the bill as aptly as Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit," an aching jazz ballad revolving around the grisly metaphor for lynching and racist violence in a segregated United States. Holiday made it her signature song in a 1939 recording. Whenever she performed it, Holiday insisted that the bar stop serving drinks and that the audience put down their glasses.

The song earned her a name on federal law enforcement's blacklist and harassment by the FBI, which said it would leave the singer alone if she stopped singing the song. Holiday refused and took the fall for someone else after a drug arrest that earned her a felony sentence in prison.

Darby-Duffin admits Holiday was never one of her favorite singers growing up — "her voice was too tinny for the popular singers I was used to"— but the singer's triumph over circumstances into the glory of music earned the Utah actor/singer's undying respect.

"Yes, tragic things happened to her, but she was never the victim," Darby-Duffin said. "In my eyes, she started the Civil Rights movement before we even knew there was going to be a such a movement."

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Artsalt

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'Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill'

Pygmalion Productions revives its 2010 staging of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," again featuring Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin as Billie Holiday and directed by Teresa Sanderson.

When • Opens Thursday, Oct. 25, and runs through Nov. 1; Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee, 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Info • $20. Call 801-355-2787 or visit http://pygmalionproductions.org for more information.

More • Barbara M. Bannon, in The Tribune's review of the 2010 production, termed Darby-Duffin's portrayal graceful and assured. Although the playwright's script sometimes lags, "this portrait of Billie Holiday remains vivid and memorable." See the review at http://bit.ly/avtjVW.